Wizardry Online: First Impressions
For the elderly gaming generation, the name Wizardry evokes some strong nostalgia. Stirring the pot of emotions, it was Wizardry that introduced many role-playing game enthusiasts to some of the worst gaming tricks in the book; so much so, that Wizardry has earned its status as a gaming trope. But to try to explain Wizardry’s power to younger generation of gamers, those that didn’t nurse themselves on games like Oregon Trail and Zork, is a bit like trying to explain the horror of the atomic bomb to anyone outside of the fallout zone: unless you’ve played witness, the scope of its power simply doesn’t sink in.
That isn’t to glorify Wizardry entirely as the hardest game series to ever exist. Gamers have discovered many other pits of gaming hell across multiple platforms. But Wizardry, itself, may truly hold the title of the most difficult role-playing game series. So when Sony Online Entertainment announced it would have publishing rights to Gamepot’s Wizardry Online for North America, many gamers were rightfully skeptic. There is simply no way, they declare, that such an unforgiving game can possibly succeed in the modern world of comfortable, easy-going MMOs where often, the worst penalty for failure in combat is a corpse run from a nearby waypoint.
Wizardry is all about throwing as many roadblocks in the player’s way as possible, to make progress truly difficult. So what does Wizardry Online chuck at the player? To start with, there’s permanent death in the game. There’s no automatic regeneration of health or mana, and leveling up must be done in limited locations. There’s open world PvP that you can’t opt out of, complete with corpse looting. There’s a punishing criminal system that can have the guards running after you and players collecting bounties on your head. In short: it is easy to die, easy to lose your loot, and easy to get stuck in a dungeon with nowhere to go but the spirit realm.
But before you scoff and turn your attention elsewhere, settle down and take a bit of a closer look at what Wizardry Online is all about. While your gaming experience may be uncomfortable, and sometimes frustrating, there’s something new and something old to be found in this genre-changing title.
Let’s step back to the basics. Wizardry Online has four available races – the average humans, the magical elves, the fighter-priest dwarves (male) and gnomes (female), and the sneaky Porkul. Each race has its own strengths and weaknesses, and the race you choose determines your base statistics. This is important in choosing from one of the game’s four classes: fighter, mage, priest, and thief. Each class has a minimum stat required to be able to choose it at all, which you can boost yourself to by using your randomly selected number of bonus statistical points. You’ll also have a choice of alignment (lawful, neutral, and chaotic), which further narrows your class choice. Whether alignment further affects your character progression remains to be seen, but the ultimate point of character creation is to think carefully about your choices before you begin adventuring. Multiclassing is also possible, letting you start over at level one as a new class while carrying up to five of your old abilities with you.
Controls for Wizardry Online take a little getting used to, but are overall fairly standard for an MMO. WASD or using the left and right buttons together on the mouse lets you steer your character about, and space bar (out of combat) lets you jump. However, you must use another key to enter combat mode, in which you must actively attack with your mouse and your hot-bar abilities, block (only if you have a shield) with left shift), dodge backward (with space), and strafe. Using the tab key lets you lock onto a target, which can be helpful if not disorienting, since the camera does not adjust with your character’s movement.
The core gameplay in Wizardry Online consists of going to public dungeons (no private instances here) to complete story quests, individual missions, and hopefully, snag some sweet loot along the way. Dungeons require permits to unlock, but these are saved to your soul rather than your individual character (a little about souls later). Exploring dungeons follows the old rules of roleplaying-games: map pieces must be discovered, traps are everywhere, chests must be disarmed, and puzzles must be solved to complete the dungeon. In addition, the respawn rate on enemies is high due to instances being open world, so there is little time to rest and little room for safety.
Death lurks around every corner in Wizardry – even after you’re dead. When your character dies, you will be transported to the spirit realm as a ghost, where you must do a reverse corpse run to return to a shrine and attempt resurrection. Even as a ghost, though, danger lurks – various enemies also roam the realm of death, where you must wander defenseless. If you can survive and make It back to the area’s shrine, you will have two chances to resurrect your character. A scale will indicate what your chance of success is, and if it’s less than 100%, you can increase the chance of revival by sacrificing some of your items to appease the gods. Succeed, and you will revive and may resume your adventure. Fail and your body will turn to ash, giving you one last chance to return to life. If you don’t succeed this time, your death will be permanent.
As harsh as permanent death sounds, the reality is that the death system is forgiving. To begin with, death is generally a matter of personal responsibility; playing defensively, working in groups, and avoiding traps will usually ensure you keep your health bar in the positive. At early levels, you will have a high rate of revival success and have to sacrifice nothing to return to life, and even at later levels, staving off a permanent burial isn’t impossible. In addition, your story progress is saved to your Soul, an account progression system which levels up as you do (just at a slower rate). Your Soul not only saves your story progress, letting you avoid the dreaded “all this newbie stuff all over again” syndrome; it also grants you additional perks including a shared account storage system. In short, even with death, progress eventually becomes easier.
Speaking of progression, expect a little difference from the normal MMO and a return to more old-school RPG mechanics. To level up, you must visit an inn (or if you’re lucky, find a fountain). How much you pay the innkeeper will affect how much stat gains you’ll have on level up – and take heed, because your stats can also drop when you level! Leveling will also grant you skill points, which you can assign to one of two trees depending on your class choice. Souls must also be leveled up in the Temple in order for their boons to take effect. Your gear is also vital, and you must pay a visit to the Blacksmith to repair your equipment, and the forge if you wish to take a risk and upgrade it (with a chance of losing it forever.)
A last point to consider is Wizardry Online’s “hardcore” open world PvP. After you reach soul level 2, you will lose your PvP protection and will be able to be attacked freely anywhere in the world (yes, even in town); naturally, you can also attack others if that’s your inclination. The PvP system also harkens back to Ultima Online days – player corpses can be looted, even if you weren’t the cause of their demise. Both attacking players and looting their gear will flag you as a criminal, and the more crime you do, the worse of a criminal you will become. Criminals can be freely attacked from any player without consequences, and will also be chased down by town guards. To survive, criminals must sneak about to the Slums, a guardless area for the less scrupulous. While a few merchants exist in the Slums, players will find it hard to level up their progress. Meanwhile, the bounty system may have bounty hunters hunting through the slums for criminals – at a risk of their own, unprotected, lives. Because the penalties for crime are steep, PvP is currently limited, and may continue to be so – meaning criminals are likely to be notorious and hunted, not just any average high-level player looking to PK a few noobs.
There’s no doubt that Wizardry Online revisits older RPG days, when pencil and paper were your map and a d20 was your best friend and worst enemy. It is also certainly not a replica of modern MMORPGs. Players are likely to find that Wizardry Online offers a good balance of old and new, of hardcore and casual: a permanent death system that’s forgiving, a criminal system that’s punishing, an exploration and dungeon system that’s challenging. Wizardry Online attempts to be a more realistic game, returning to the concerns of limited inventory, dangerous traps, mind twisting puzzles, and random elements.
However, Wizardry Online is also lacking in some of the difficulty that made Wizardry so well known – punishing resurrections, sudden and total death, level grinding, and guide reliance. In that respect, some of the old class of gamers might find themselves disappointed that some of the challenge is lost in an effort to mass-market the series for online gamers. The current lack of advanced classes, and a drab and lifeless town experience, also chips away at the appeal of Wizardry Online. The title is certainly one to pay attention to, especially if you’ve been waiting for an MMO with some challenge to it. But can it (or should it) live up to the Wizardry fame?
Games mentioned in this article
- Wizardry Online - Prepare for permadeath and open world PvP in the hardcore MMORPG Wizardry Online, from Sony Online Entertainment.